The Mets needed the kids to spark a lethargic offense and put their season back on track. But ultimately they will need dominance from their aging Cy Young Award winners to have a real shot at a championship in 2023, and as such Sunday was a day when suddenly anything seemed possible again at Citi Field.
Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander.
Yep, they sure looked worth the big money on this day, delivering a split-doubleheader sweep over the Cleveland Guardians, allowing just one run between them over 14 innings.
Verlander summed up the significance of it when asked if this is the kind of 1-2 punch he envisioned when he signed with the Mets.
“I mean, yeah,” Verlander told reporters. “We all know what Max is capable of and I’m hoping to hit my groove. That’s how you would draw it up, on a day like this.”
It’s a long way to October, of course, both for the 38-year-old Scherzer, whose early-season performance was diminished by injuries, and the 40-year-old Verlander, who missed the first month due to a shoulder problem.
But, yes, this is exactly why Steve Cohen is paying them a combined $86 million this season.
And for now, that’s enough as the doubleheader sweep gives the Mets a five-game winning streak that feels like it has changed everything about their season.
It was only last Tuesday, remember, that Verlander and the Mets were getting soundly booed by a Citi Field crowd that was sick and tired of underachieving baseball from a team that wasn’t hitting, wasn’t pitching, and looked to be going nowhere.
Now, suddenly, the Mets can’t lose. They own the late innings and look like a team that once again believes it will find a way to win, even on a night like Sunday when Shane Bieber was shutting them out for five innings and making it look easy.
As Francisco Lindor said after the 2-1 win finished off the sweep, “We’re on a high right now. It was a great week.”
The revival started five days ago with big home runs by the rookies, Mark Vientos and Francisco Alvarez, and Brett Baty doing his part as well. Then Pete Alonso got hot. And now Lindor is finding his lefthanded swing, getting the Mets on the board against Bieber with a sixth-inning home run to center field.
Then Alvarez, the young catcher, again played a key part, with his leadoff single in the eighth inning. From there Lindor got a little lucky with a check-swing single and Jeff McNeil delivered the game-winning run with a gritty at-bat, getting his bat on a nasty slider and making enough contact to produce a sacrifice fly to left.
Earlier in the day, more late-inning magic: no sooner had Adam Ottavino and David Robertson combined to blow a 3-0 than Starling Marte, who looked lost at the plate most of this season, went deep to right field in the bottom of the eighth, one batter after Baty drew a leadoff walk.
Simply put, this looks like a different team now. The kids are a big part of it. An offense that couldn’t get a clutch hit for weeks now is making it look routine, especially in the late innings when it counts most.
“Good hitting becomes contagious,” Lindor said. “Guys relax and stop trying to do too much. Myself included.”
Maybe the same applies to the pitching. Kodai Senga and Tylor Megill both pitched well, and when the Mets overcame a poor return to the rotation from injury by Carlos Carrasco on Friday night, the stage was set for Scherzer and Verlander this weekend.
That they pitched on the same day was due to the rainout, of course, but in a sense that only added to the intrigue.
First, Scherzer gutted out six shutout innings while pitching with a cut on his thumb that he said caused pain and reduced velocity on his fastball, forcing him to rely mostly on his off-speed stuff, his curveball and change-up.
If not for the thumb issue he likely would have gone deeper into the game, but, in any case, it was a second straight impressive start, offering reason to believe his early-season ineffectiveness was due to the back/scapula injury he was pitching through.
And then there was Verlander with the start of the season for the Mets. Not only did he throw a three-hit gem but he gave them the length they desperately needed with their bullpen on fumes, becoming their first pitcher to go eight innings this season.
Verlander said he was aware the Mets were thin in the pen for the second game. That and knowing the Guardians are a contact-hitting team that doesn’t hit many home runs but also doesn’t strike out much, dictated his game plan.
“I decided to attack the strike zone and see where it took me,” he said.
It got him through eight innings on 98 pitches, and while he didn’t have a big strikeout day, three of his five K’s came from the sixth inning on as he got stronger and broke out a few hellacious curve balls.
If he were 10 years younger there’s no doubt he would have finished off the Guardians himself after the offense broke the 1-1 tie in the bottom of the eighth.
But the Mets will take this version of Verlander and be thrilled about it. Same for Scherzer. Yes, this indeed is how they drew it up.